WWII Memorial to open by month's end

Crews rush to finish job before official dedication in May

April 09, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Washington's World War II Memorial won't be dedicated until Memorial Day weekend, but visitors to the nation's capital will be able to explore it starting later this month.

With construction ahead of schedule - and hundreds of World War II veterans dying every day - builders of the $107 million monument decided it didn't make sense to keep it off limits to the public any longer than necessary.

As contractors rushed yesterday to finish the landscaping, representatives of the American Battle Monuments Commission announced that the construction fences would soon be coming down and the completed memorial will have a "soft opening" by month's end.

"This memorial may be a first in Washington," Gen. Paul Xavier "P.X." Kelley, chairman of the monuments commission, boasted during a press preview. "We are not only ahead of schedule. We are under budget.

"With our World War II veterans dying off at a rate of 1,200 a day," Kelley said, "we asked ourselves, `Can we in good faith leave the memorial on an inactive status, between the date of completion and the date of the dedication, or should we go forward with the opening?' and we said `Let's do it.' ... It's a great tribute to the greatest generation."

The monument is reaching completion almost 11 years after President Bill Clinton signed legislation authorizing construction, on May 25, 1993.

Designed principally by Friedrich St. Florian, a Rhode Island-based architect who grew up in Austria and won a 1996 competition, it is the first national memorial dedicated to all who served during World War II.

It occupies a prominent spot on Washington's Mall, a 7.4-acre parcel between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and has been under construction since August 2001.

The memorial's central feature is a sunken oval plaza that will serve as a new public gathering spot, with the Mall's reconstructed Rainbow Pool at its center.

The plaza is framed by architectural features that are laden with symbolism, including 56 granite pillars representing the states and territories that joined forces during the war, and two arched pavilions that symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war. A curving "Freedom Wall" contains 4,000 sculpted gold stars, commemorating the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives. During the war, the gold star was the symbol of family sacrifice.

St. Florian pared down his original design after critics voiced concerns that it was too large and ostentatious to fit comfortably on the Mall.

The architect said yesterday that he is pleased with the result and hopeful that it will inspire visitors to learn more about the event.

Memorials such as this are not built solely for the veterans, he said. "Memorials are built for future generations to see. ... The real beneficiaries have to be the young people - 100 years from now, 150 years from now - who come here and don't know much about World War II."

The war was "the watershed event of the 20th century," he said. "We have built a very powerful memorial that really is commensurate with the enormity of the event" it marks.

St. Florian said he worked hard to preserve the vista between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, as well as views from the north and south, by keeping the architectural features low and spread apart. He said he is particularly pleased by the way the Rainbow Pool and other water features animate the site.

Nineteenth-century architect Charles Follen McKim once said that the monument of Washington should not be a man on a horse, St. Florian said. "It should be the fountain. That resonated with me."

Other design team members include Leo A. Daly, the architect of record; George Hartman of Hartman-Cox Architects; James A. van Sweden of Oehme, van Sweden and Associates, the landscape architect; sculptor Raymond Kaskey and stone carver Nicholas Benson.

According to Kelley and others, the monument's construction cost is about $2 million under budget, and most of the funds have come in private contributions. The commission has received more than $194 million in cash and pledges, of which $16 million was provided by the federal government.

The commission has planned a four-day dedication, "Tribute to a Generation," May 27 to 30. It marks the start of a summer-long celebration in Washington honoring America's World War II generation.

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